It’s interesting how much focus has been placed on whether V, the title character in the new movie V for Vendetta, is portrayed in such a way as to cast a favorable light on terrorism. The more astute reviewers have discussed the movie’s blurring of the line between freedom fighters and terrorists. But the most important questions raised in the film, while they do indeed center around terrorism, concern not so much the nature of V but rather that of the main instigator of terrorism, both in the film and real life — the state.
The ethical issues surrounding V’s violence — which is directed at the state orchestrators of a harrowing past atrocity, as well as the totalitarian state itself, its régime, its top officials, and its symbols — are not unimportant. The cruelty of V is not a light matter. But his rampage is, for the most part, focused. He does at times, strictly speaking, aggress against the plot’s heroine — criminality that she later forgives. He mostly attacks aggressors and those who get in his way.
V’s violence, however, pales in comparison, and is secondary, to that of the state, and perhaps it is not so much the alleged glorification of his, but rather the portrayal of the state’s, that irks so many people so much about this movie.
In aggrandizement and protection of its power, the state in Vendetta has taken the church under its fold, making it an arm of the government and thus corrupting it completely. It divides and conquers, making the people more afraid of peaceful differences among one another than of the coercive institution that threatens them all. It explores the wretched avenues of biological warfare, tests demonic weapons on its own subjects, and scapegoats others for whatever goes wrong. It forbids unapproved religious texts and anything else seen as challenging its authority. It targets civilians while disingenuously accusing the vigilante of doing so. It murders, rapes, and spies on its citizens without relent.
Any serious dissent from or ridicule of the state is forbidden: the government kills a TV personality for his controversial comedy bit that lambasts the régime’s chancellor. (Anti-authoritarians should be glad that Hollywood, although restrained somewhat by law and regulation, remains mostly dominated by private enterprise. Only an uncensored market can allow dissent to come through, as it does in this gloriously un-PC, anti-establishment film. One wonders how much some might actually favor censoring movies this radical in our own time and country.)
The state in Vendetta uses its puppet media to bombard the public with lies, disinformation, and dishonest good news of progress or inflated warnings of perennial threats and worldly strife, depending on its tactical needs of the day. It demonizes the enemy, foreigners, and minorities, rules by force and relies on fear.
It is a crude and secular theocracy, a corporatist managerial dictatorship in which the majority of people are still allowed to live normal lives — albeit amidst economic turmoil caused by the state’s policies — as they raise their families, go to work, drink in bars, and drown any potentially dissident thoughts in the distracting drone of state-approved television.
If the film’s detractor’s don’t see any parallels between the dramatized political crisis and that of real life, why do they worry that the movie provides a cover or excuse for terrorism as it is defined in the real world? Were the current situation so tyrannical and desperate as in the movie, would any and all violence against the present state be viewed as terrorism? (Notably, few people seem to similarly see terrorism in the brutalities of other comic book heroes who lash out mercilessly against common, rather than political, thugs.)
I cannot endorse all of V’s violent methods. But that is not really the point. As for blowing up empty government buildings, while it may sometimes be arguably defensible in the context of a just revolution, such destruction rarely achieves any improvement. The right to revolution against tyranny, however, is itself an idea at least as old as the United States.
The movie is about such ideas. V considers himself the personification of the idea of retributive justice. He characterizes himself as an “equal and opposing reaction” to the “monstrous” state violence that created him, a monster. To dislike his methods, one must also dislike the brutality that spawned his reactive violence. A difference between him and the state is that the latter practices much more expansive violence against countless innocent people. V’s retaliatory violence is met and overshadowed by the state’s own, which is far more encompassing. Another difference is that the state’s violence enjoys legal privilege; it is obscured and enabled by the concept, held by most its subjects, that the state should be allowed to do what private actors are not.
And that’s the real important point to be found in the movie. When a single man does something criminal, he is generally perceived as an anti-social element. When the state practices criminality on a much grander scale, it is considered security. The double standard, taken to an extreme, is the ideology of totalitarianism, the ideology adopted tacitly by the populace in the film.
In response to the statist ideology, V offers his proposed corrective: “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should by afraid of their people.” Coming from a masked avenger intent on blowing up Parliament, this might sound like extremism. But it’s not too far from that adage attributed to Thomas Jefferson, who purportedly said, “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” The quotation, often invoked by conservatives, at least when the Democrats are in power, continues into the more radical: “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” Was Thomas Jefferson defending terrorism?
Actually, the American Revolution, widely seen as a just overthrow of a state, was far more violent against the innocent and guilty than the revolution portrayed in Vendetta. The belligerent detonation of Parliament is merely “symbolic,” as V calls it, of a quieter revolution in social conscience. Ultimately, it is not V’s onslaught that unravels the government. What really do the state in are its own precarious foundation and the refusal of people to follow its orders. The mass resistance at the end is non-violent — thousands of denizens refuse to back down as they walk right past the hundreds of troops armed with battle rifles. The military refuses to fire on the people, and lets the outnumbering masses through peacefully. The high-ranking detective charged with apprehending V also refuses to keep playing the game, once he learns the truth about the institution he works for. As in the demise of the Soviet Union, non-compliance and lost faith in the régime are what kill the state in Vendetta.
Thus does a total state meet its maker, having spent massive resources and dedicated legions of people to catch the uncatchable one-man insurgency. The incompetence and inner conflict of bureaucracy come through elegantly in the film. Its curfews, its NSA-style surveillance of every home, its mass arrests do nothing to defeat its elusive and ubiquitous adversary. Instead, both the state and the reactive belligerent it incited fall in concert, as freedom becomes reclaimed by the people.
In the end we see that only fear and passive acquiescence have allowed the oppression to persist. When the people finally realize they far outnumber the state’s minions and can stand up to repression, they do so and the despotic charade crumbles. What must happen first is that they must admit to themselves that something has gone terribly wrong with their country. Once they all see the tyranny for what it is and are willing to confront it, it doesn’t stand a chance.
When we consider the movie’s treatment of government, and for a second look beyond the rogue antics of the horrifying hero it has begotten, then we can perhaps see why some people hate the movie so much. We wouldn’t want people to understand the immorality and transience of the state, now would we? If we would, we can only cheer on the popularity of the film, for rarely has the corrupt essence of the state been so compellingly vivified on the silver screen.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.